Russia protests after Treasury Dept. puts rock star and Putin ally on ‘black list’
Russia on Thursday dismissed as unacceptable a US decision to blacklist a rock star who counts President Vladimir Putin among his fans, for allegedly working for a transnational criminal group.
Raspy-voiced rocker Grigory Leps, one of the country’s top-earning stars, was one of six people named by the US Treasury Department on Wednesday as “acting for or on behalf of” members of the Brothers’ Circle criminal group.
It said that he “couriers money on behalf of Vladislav Leontyev,” named as a key member involved in drugs trafficking.
Leps is one of Russia’s most popular stars with his tough-guy image and hits including “Glass of Vodka on the Table” and “Cupolas”.
The Treasury Department action bans US citizens from doing business with the crime group suspects and freezes their US assets.
“We hope that American authorities will give us detailed explanations,” foreign ministry human rights representative Konstantin Dolgov said in a statement on Thursday.
“Russia’s foreign minister insists on the fact that the question of whether Russian citizens are guilty or not must be resolved in our country within the Russian justice system,” the statement read.
“It is unacceptable that the United States take this role on their own by putting arbitrary labels on people and violating the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence.”
Leps, who is touring far eastern Russia, dismissed the accusation.
“For me all of this sounds ridiculous, delusional and of course unexpected,” he said in a statement on his website.
“I am a law-abiding citizen.”
The Treasury Department report says the Brothers’ Circle is made up of high-level members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in the former Soviet Union but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
Its latest action brings to 28 the total number of people and entities sanctioned for alleged ties to the group.
The Treasury Department’s statement uses Leps’ real name, Grigory Lepsveridze.
Leps has been awarded the honorific title of “distinguished artist of Russia” by the government. The Russian edition of Forbes magazine this year put him as the second highest earning Russian star, with latest annual earnings of $15 million.
In February last year, he performed at a stadium rally for tens of thousands of Putin supporters in Moscow. He was also one of a number of stars to make a campaign video explaining why he would vote for Putin in the presidential poll.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Life News television that the Kremlin was aware of the statement and would monitor the situation.
Leps is not the only Russian popular singer to be viewed with suspicion by the US authorities.
Washington has repeatedly refused to grant visas to ruling party lawmaker and crooner Iosif Kobzon, who is often compared in Russia to Frank Sinatra and has long been rumoured to have links to mobsters.
Watch Leps perform with Ani Lorak, as posted online in July 2013, below.